Thomas Doty – Storyteller
A Native View
Tidbits of Culture
Each of these one-paragraph essays focuses on a topical slice of native culture. They make great discussion starters in the classroom ... or anywhere else.
In southwest Oregon, Acorn Woman is an important medicine woman. She makes her home on Mount McLoughlin in the Cascade Mountains. Each spring she walks into the valleys and spreads her skin over the oak trees to grow acorns for the native people. Her medicine keeps the people healthy. In the fall, after the acorns have been gathered, she returns to her mountain where she spends the winter. Her white hair is the shape of the snow.
The rock writing symbol for completeness is a rope with the two ends tied together. Native people see their world in circles and cycles rather than straight lines. To tie the rope transforms it from a straight line to a circle, makes it complete. This symbol is frequently found at vision quest sites, a sacred place to journey to, experience days and nights of dreams and visions, and then return home. To native people, the message is clear: Complete this journey to become a complete person.
Native people of the West have been water people for a long time. Boats are common in ancient myths. In a Takelma story, the White Duck sisters paddle across the sea from the Village Beyond the Sunset to the Rogue River. In another story, Coyote refuses to be ferried across the river to the Land of the Dead. At a sacred island in Tule Lake, a quarter mile of ancient stories were carved into a shoreline cliff by people standing in boats. Since that mythic time when the world was nothing but water, native waterways have been well-traveled.
In the Old Time, native people from all over the West traveled to Celilo Falls on the Columbia River to fish, to trade blankets, baskets, horses ... and share stories! They brought some of those stories home, set them in their neighborhood, peopled them with characters from their own mythology, and made new versions in their local language. Those stories found a home in their ageless cycle of myths, told over and over, honed and made familiar, night after winter night.
Daldal, a giant dragonfly in Takelma mythology, has a split personality: wise man and fool. Everything about him is twofold. His name is a repetition of a single sound -- dal dal -- and his huge eyes look like two heads. In one story, Daldal dramatizes his duality by splitting himself in half! He becomes two brothers. Elder Daldal is wise and does good things in the world. Younger Daldal is self-serving and foolish. In the end, the brothers turn into the two Table Rocks along the Rogue River.
West of the Cascade Mountains, most native villages were located along rivers, and yet people got their drinking water from springs and small creeks. In the Old Time, when fish were abundant, there were also lots of dead fish in the rivers, making that water undesirable for drinking. In the 1800s, Europeans reported that fish were so plentiful one could go fishing with a pitchfork! But for native people, there is a deeper meaning. Fetching life-giving water is a sacred gesture, a daily journey to the source, bringing them a little closer to creation.
Gumbat -- "among the rocks" -- was an ancient Modoc village on the south shore of Tule Lake. In January of 1827, Hudson's Bay Company fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden and his company of 43 men were the first Europeans to visit the village. Ogden wrote in his journal: "We took the liberty of demolishing their Huts for fire wood.... I should certainly regret that our side should cause a quarrel with these Indians, for so far their conduct toward us has been certainly most correct and orderly and worthy of imitation by all."
In a Takelma story, Jackrabbit went crazy and clear-cut the woods. Coyote told the people that Jackrabbit was killing their relations. Thinking Coyote meant their human relations, the people waged the first war ever on Jackrabbit, and nearly everyone died. It took years for the Human People and the Tree People to recover. Telling and retelling the story helped everyone heal. "As long as this story lives," says the teller, "the trees will live. If the story dies, that will be the end of us and the end of our relations, the trees."
For many native tribes in the West, five is a sacred number. Vision quests and other ceremonies last five days and nights. Five is also important in Old Time stories. It took Bear five years to become Great Bear in the Sky and start the seasons circling through the year. In another story, Crow cawed five times as he stole Eagle's sun box and smashed it. Bringing sunlight into the world was a sacred gesture. If Crow had cawed six times, the world might not have turned out so well.
Takelma people have been playing flutes since the Old Time. At the Sacred Salmon Ceremony, divers returning the bones and skin of the First Salmon to the bottom of the Rogue River were honored by a chorus of many flutes. In a lonely place, a young person played a flute to attract vivid dreams during a vision quest, or back in the village, to attract a mate. The first flute was described in a myth: Eel blew air out the holes in his body. He made the best music.
In a Cinderella-like Modoc story, Gaukos wanted Green Frog Woman to be his wife. Though her nine sisters called her ugly, starved her, dressed her in rags and scratched her face until it bled, Gaukos still desired her. He whispered to her, "I want you, the one who lives in my heart. We'll forever travel the sky, and I will call you Beautiful Green Frog Woman." These days, Gaukos is the moon, the frog in the moon is his wife, and the smaller shapes on the moon are their children.
Locations of Indian graveyards vary from place to place, river to river.... At Ti'lomikh on the Rogue, the graveyard is at the lower end of the village ... a short journey downriver to the Land of the Dead. At Coyote's Paw on the Klamath, the graves are upriver, allowing the dead a last walk through the old neighborhood before heading on down the river. In native villages, the graves of the ancestors are always close by.
Every Takelma story begins with the words, wili yowo, "there was a house." The importance of home in the myths dramatizes the people's deep love of their home and their homeland. Before traveling, it is an Old Time custom to stand a pestle on end to show that the house is lived in. If the pestle falls over, the occupants have gone away for good. Maybe they have died. In Indian country, there's a reason why forced removal from one's beloved homeland is called a Trail of Tears.
Since the Old Time, native people have kept their stories alive by telling them. Night after night. For centuries! Everything cultural is passed through the stories ... history, folklore, beliefs. To be native means knowing and living your stories. On the reservations, after being forcibly removed from their homelands, the people were warned they would be severely punished if they spoke their language or told their stories. Even then, they gathered each evening, unseen in the shadows. And they whispered their stories, night after night after night.
Winter is the season of native storytelling. On long nights, during the moon called Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire, people gather in community houses and share stories. Old Time stories are remembered, new ones created, each story deepening the homeland roots of the people. Gaukos becomes the moon. Coyote steals fire. A father tries to bring his dead daughter back from the Land of the Dead. As storms scream through the village, people sit close to the fire sharing stories, night after winter night, all night long.
In the native world, rocks are alive. Everyone is People! There are Animal People, Bird People, Fire People, Human People, and the oldest ones, the Rock People. Many have nicknames. Tree People are affectionately called One Leggeds, Salmon People are Swimmers, Grass People are Dancers. Sometimes, People get lost in translation. Scholars usually translate the village name of Ti'lomikh as "west of which are cedars." From the native point of view it means "west of here live the Cedar People." There are all kinds of People living in the world!
Rain rocks are ancient carved boulders. They are covered with a blanket to prevent rain, and uncovered to bring rain. Most rain rocks are dimpled with carved depressions representing many cupped hands, the native symbol for drinking. Some have carvings of bear prints to honor Great Bear in the Sky who controls the seasons. Long ago, a rain rock along the Klamath River was covered permanently -- buried in the ground -- following days of rain that caused a devastating flood. In 1948, it was unearthed by a highway crew and moved to Fort Jones.
In the Old Time, Salmon People agreed to provide food for the Human People and the humans promised to help keep the salmon species healthy. Each year on the Rogue River, that sacred trust is honored. The first salmon of the spring run is put on a rack to dry. Bones and skin are returned to the bottom of the river. No one fishes, allowing thousands of Salmon People to swim upstream and spawn. When the first salmon has dried, the humans go fishing!
One of our universal human needs is to feel safe. In native rock carvings and paintings there is an ancient symbol for safety or safe place: bird prints. Here's the concept. A bird will only land in a place long enough to leave prints if he feels safe. This symbol is found in places native people consider safe places to camp, to live, to travel through....
All night, while people are sleeping, their shadows are out having a good time. They visit friends. They dance in the woods. Shadows swim in the river. In the morning, people call their shadows back to them. They can't live without their shadows. "Shadow, come home. The sun is nearly here. Come over the mountains. Come home through the valleys. Come home through the morning mist. Cross over the rivers and creeks. Come spend the day with me. I want to live a long time. Shadow, come home."
At the western edge of the Modoc homeland is a moon-shaped ridge called Shapasheni, "where the sun and moon live." In native stories. the sun and moon journey across the sky to their home in the west where they sleep in their lodge. When they wake up, they travel underground through lava caves to rise again in the east. Early settlers found Shapasheni difficult to say. To this day, several landmarks in the area are called Sheepy, a simplified English version of Shapasheni.
In many native cultures, Snake is a symbol of good luck and longevity. The Modocs believe that if Rattlesnake wraps himself around your leg and doesn't bite, you will live a long and lucky life. In a Coos myth, Snake and a young girl become friends, and Snake provides her village with food for generations. At the end of a storytelling, the teller says: "You've heard enough stories. If you listen to too many stories at one time, you'll have bad luck with rattlesnakes!"
For centuries, near Tule Lake, an ancient ritual was acted out with the solstice sun and a rock painting. The symbols tell this story: "At this place, on the longest day of the year, the sun rises over the eastern hills and shines just to the right of the cave entrance." In 1993, an earthquake shifted the rock that shaped the sunlight into a finger that pointed to the symbols and marked the solstice. The rock needs to be propped back up for the ritual to happen again.
Along the Rogue River are two stone chairs used during the Sacred Salmon Ceremony. One is carved into bedrock near the falls where a fisherman watches for the first salmon of the spring run, a signal to begin the ceremony. The other chair is a smaller rock on the riverbank where a storyteller tells stories of the salmon. Both chairs are called Story Chairs. As the ceremony is acted out near the falls, the story is told on the riverbank, a well-rehearsed balance of ritual and telling. Two chairs for two kinds of stories.
In native stories, Coyote gets mangled a lot but he never really dies. Though he brings stuff of importance to the people -- Crater Lake, tobacco, stars in the sky -- it often involves him doing something so stupidly self-serving that he's squished into bits and pieces of his former self. But Coyote is a magical pooch! He always puts himself back together in time to star in the next story. Coyote is a reassembly-required kind of dog, and he does it very well.
Native people have an ancient relationship with water. Old Time walking trails follow rivers and creeks. Canoe trails wind through marshes and crisscross lakes. People travel along water, across water, live next to water. Water is the lifeblood of native worlds, and life itself to each person. People along the Rogue River call themselves Takelma, "the river's people." In a Modoc story, the creator carved ravines down the mountains so rivers and creeks flowed to villages in the valleys. In story after story, and in everyday life, the people are blessed with water.
Some tribes dance their circle dances to the left to honor Great Bear in the Sky (Big Dipper) who circles the seasons by dancing to his left around his fire (North Star). Others dance to their right because Wolf moves to his right in their myths. In the 1800s, with the introduction of the Ghost Dance, some tribes reversed the direction as part of a plan to drive away Europeans who had arrived dancing square dances! These days, at multi-tribal powwows, there's plenty of discussion about which way to dance.
One of the native names for the Winter Solstice moon translates as Split Both Ways. While the days will lengthen, there are still lots of long, cold nights ahead. A mixed bag to be sure. It's a great time to be indoors telling stories. Above Deer Creek in southern Oregon, the sun rises over Mount McLoughlin, lined up on the solstice with ancient cairns built of columnar basalt. That night, between stories, natives gaze at the winter solstice moon with mixed emotions.